Carl Heinrich Graun isn’t exactly a household name today but he was court composer to the extremely musical Frederick the Great who was fond of both his flute and the opera when he wasn’t too busy being beastly to the Austrians. Anyway, Graun composed a ton of opera and based on the arias on this disk it’s surprising that they are almost completely neglected. The only Graun opera I have seen is Montezuma which got a video recording in Bayreuth about thirty five years ago so I was quite keen to see what else he had done.
Some of the arias on the disk were written originally for soprano and some for castrato. Here they all sung by Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva who seems to have become something of a rescuer of baroque German rep. They range from insanely fast and intricate, like the aria “Sento una pen” from L’Orfeo which opens the disk to the much more lyrical “Senza di te, mio bene” from Coriolano to the rather moving “Mi paventi il figlio indegno” from Britannico. Yes, some of Graun’s libretti are drawn from the usual stock of the period; Metastasio etc, others are reworkings, by the king and his court poets, of French Classical dramas by the likes of Racine and Corneille. In any event they show a mastery of the da capo idiom and suggest the operas themselves should be on a par with Handel’s opera seria.
Ms. Lezhneva is a pretty amazing technician. She can handle super fast and complex coloratura, and some of this is insane, but she also has really good legato in the slower pieces. The only fault I can find is that the very top of her upper register sounds a little thin and forced but, honestly, I can think of few singers who could even attempt some of these pieces, let alone nail them technically. She is accompanied by the Concerto Köln with Mikhail Antonenko conducting. They are excellent in all respects.
The recording was made in the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal and is very clear and transparent (and it needs to be). The booklet contains full texts and translations as well as some useful explanatory material. All in all, a good introduction to some neglected repertoire.